If one were looking to inject the New Year with a shot in the arm of hope and promise, along with generous doses of skill and youthful energy — then this performance by the Santa Barbara Jazz Collective was the way to do it. Here was enough inoculation to keep the blues away all year (unless, of course, the opening tune happened to be Blues March by Art Blakey). It was impossible to leave SOhO Restaurant & Music Club on Wednesday night without a sense of optimism and admiration for this extraordinary sextet of college music majors who managed to pull together this gig while home between semesters. Ah, youth … and well-groomed talent. This is how jazz should be — bursting at the seams, riding waves of discovery, radiant with controlled abandon.
The five men of the SBJC all now hail from Boston’s Berklee School of Music: Victor Murillo (upright bass), Matt Raphaelian (drums), Jared Yee (tenor sax), Lito Hernandez (alto sax), and Harrison Swalley (trumpet). The only female member, trombonist Mariel Bildsten, is a freshman at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. The group was part of the line-up the previous Friday at the second annual Santa Barbara Jazz, Song & Friends concert at the Montecito Country Club (a gregarious affair that drew more than 600 guests); but Wednesday’s SOhO appearance gave the SBJC the stage to themselves with three hours to stretch out and an undistracted audience.
The nerve current of the SBJC is the astonishing rhythm section. Raphaelian is a strong drummer who can terminate a syncopated sequence with a rim shot and a bass punch that shoots up your spine. He plays with edge-of-the-seat glee and open-mouth wonder that alternate exuberance and ecstasy. Murillo is one of the most melodic bass soloists I have heard, spontaneously researching with evident delight unsuspected harmonic topography; his hand seems to spider its way up and down the neck with a will of its own. Together, while supporting the wind soloists, the two were constantly game for sudden side trips into double-time or stylistic crossovers, all the while never compromising the steady tempo (“I like your pocket,” Wynton Marsalis reportedly told Murillo once at a jam session at Disney Hall).
The wind players were no less remarkable. Yee and Hernandez are award-winning and distinguished reedmen, and they filled the evening with artful and often eloquent solos. One was struck by the absence of the sort of technical showboating one comes to expect from younger players. Instead, there was noticeable reserve and use of space. Both men are comfortable with the language of their horns and make easy use of polyphonic accents and airy whispers. Bildsten [tk] held her own on trombone and added a stately depth to ensemble choruses. Trumpeter Swalley, who is recovering from an injury, made an appearance only at the end of the program with a fine solo on the Miles Davis tune Walkin’.
The program primarily featured music by legends such as Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Wayne Shorter; however, three notable original compositions by Murillo (who is a film scoring major) were also performed. His Bady Lird is a twist on the Tadd Dameron standard Lady Bird; School Days is a ballad of sweet longing that featured Hernandez on soprano sax; and Tema de un fauno is a Latin number inspired by Guillermo del Toro’s film El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth). Special guest and fellow Berklee-ite Christina Apostolopoulos gave comic relief, and turned in a fine vocal performance, with her blues for a lost judo match.
Finally, the evening scintillated with that cardinal virtue in jazz: communication. These players listened, repeated, translated, and celebrated each other’s ideas. Maybe we should send them to play for the U.S. Congress.